DfE propaganda video highlights maths method described as ‘tortured’ by ex-schools minister

Janet Downs's picture
‘Another essential reform to the primary curriculum is to ensure that all pupils are taught efficient calculation methods - rather than spending too much time on confusing, time-consuming methods like chunking and gridding.’

‘These tortured techniques have been the trend in recent years. Instead of simple, efficient columnar long multiplication and division, children have been taught to rely on intermediate methods, splitting numbers into smaller chunks and parts, working them out separately and repeatedly adding numbers together, or taking them away.’

Ex-schools minister, Liz Truss, January 2013

It was surprising, then, that one of the ‘tortured techniques’ was used in a Department for Education (DfE) propaganda video. Right at the end Dan Abramson, founder of King’s College Maths School, a free school specialising in mathematics, demonstrated the grid method of multiplication and applied it to algebra.

Truss had wondered ‘why the British education system has adopted an untried method for teaching maths, which holds back the most able and confuses everyone else.’

But this ‘untried method’ nevertheless features in a DfE video allegedly showing the exciting teaching that happens in free schools and academies (but not, by implication, in LA maintained schools).

A cynic might say that when a method loathed by a schools minister is used in non-free schools it is described as a ‘tortured technique’. But when it turns up in a free school it’s innovatory.

Or perhaps there’s a simpler explanation: the DfE propagandists hadn’t a clue what Truss meant and when they saw a free school teacher demonstrating the derided technique they thought, ‘Wow! That’s just what we need to show the country the type of exciting teaching that goes on in free schools!’

But there’s a sour taste to this story. Pupils taking Key Stage 2 Maths Sats receive no marks for a wrong answer if they used chunking or the grid method but pupils who get the answer wrong when using Truss’s favoured ‘traditional’ method would be rewarded. This means pupils using Truss’s 'approved' methods are given marks not available to pupils using methods she dislikes.

How did Abramson describe the traditional method? At the start of the video he explained a ‘trick’ (described more fully at the end) to calculate 35x35. Doing it the traditional way, he said, was a ‘long, tedious and boring process.’

But ‘long, tedious and boring’ will continue to be the DfE’s only preferred method. Two times schools minister Nick Gibb told the Telegraph he also disliked non-traditional methods of teaching maths.

The DfE propagandists obviously don’t agree - multiplying using a grid looked exciting particularly when done at breakneck speed. Or perhaps the DfE just doesn’t have a clue - Abramson was after all demonstrating a traditional method - he was using chalk on a blackboard.

Thanks to Michael Rath for telling us about this story.

The video is available here. See the start and then fast-forward to 27mins 51 seconds for a full demonstration.
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Patrick Hadley's picture
Tue, 07/10/2014 - 23:16

As a former Maths teacher can I just say things have come to a pretty pass if former ministers and the DfE are arguing in 2014 about methods of long multiplication. Nobody will ever need to be able to do long multiplication by any method once they leave school. The calculator and the computer are not going to be un-invented.

Good skills in mental arithmetic are very useful in everyday life, and important for progress in Maths, and an ability to estimate the answer to a complicated calculation is also worth teaching, but long multiplication and division are a waste of time for all concerned.

Roger Titcombe's picture
Thu, 16/10/2014 - 13:01

Patrick - While I understand your argument, I am troubled by a parallel in science teaching. Why should pupils learn to draw graphs when Excel can do it for you? The point is drawing graphs helps pupils to understand what a graph is, or more precisely what different sorts of graphs are.

I recently helped my nine year-old granddaughter do her maths homework that involved long multiplication and long division. I agree that no-one that needs the solution to multiplication and division sums should ever have to resort to such manual methods when a 50p calculator is to hand, but is there no value in understanding how to do it and why it works?

Then there is the importance of estimating. Doesn't understanding how long multiplication and long division work help in estimating?

I am sure pupils should draw loads of graphs with a pencil and ruler before being let loose on Excel if only to know when to reject the squiggles that appear on the screen when you click on the wrong options.

Sofonisba's picture
Sun, 12/10/2014 - 12:48

We go through cycles of being approved or feeling like heretics only allowed to practise our dark arts in secret. I tend to agree with Patrick Hadley, particularly with regard to the use of long division, where my last pencil and paper calculation was probably in the late 70s. These days, I have a mobile phone with a calculator - and yes, I may end up on a desert island with only a couple of palm fronts and a burnt stick, but I suspect long division may not be the most pressing concern. I have carried out multiplication calculations, but my preferred method is now the 'lattice' which I was shown during my PGCE a long time ago. At risk of being executed as a witch, I show the pupils this method, after I have taught the formerly approved grid (admittedly a powerful and useful method), but warn them never to use it openly. Sadly it is the fastest and most accessible method for all abilities, that I have come across. And to answer the maths fundamentalist police, I CAN explain to the pupils how it makes mathematical sense too!

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 13/10/2014 - 09:18

Sofonisba - thanks for giving a name to the multiplication method I picked up a few years ago. I don't know where I got it from - I think it might have been when I rediscovered Napier's Bones (I'd met them during Cert Ed teacher training but I'd forgotten about them because I didn't teach maths).

I now know that 'Mum's funny system' is recognised. I agree, it's also a lot quicker than the long multiplication method I was taught at school (pre-calculator days). Alas, I couldn't explain why it worked until I came across Cool Math 4 Kids.

Sofonisba's picture
Mon, 13/10/2014 - 20:58

Ah - thanks for that link. Any method which pupils embrace as fun should at least be given some consideration!

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